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HELL FIRE by Karin Fossum: Book Review

Hell Fire is one of the five best mysteries I’ve read this year.  In fact, I would remove the genre qualifier and say it’s one of the five best novels I’ve read this year.

The protagonist, Police Inspector Konrad Sejer, works in a small community outside Oslo.  The crime has Sejer shaken as he has never been before.  Two corpses are found in a broken-down trailer on a farm.  The victims are a woman, Bonnie Hayden, and a child, possibly hers, although there’s no identification for the youngster.  Looking at the child’s body, clothed in a sweatsuit, bloodied and with multiple knife wounds, it’s impossible for the inspector to tell its sex.

The story goes back and forth between two sets of people.  We first meet Eddie Malthe and his mother Mass.  Eddie is twenty-one, an overweight young man with developmental delays who is unable to hold even a menial job.  His mother takes care of him with total devotion and patience, but since they’re alone in the world she worries what will happen to him when she dies.

Mass has told her son that his father left them when Eddie was a young boy.  Eddie doesn’t really remember the man, whom his mother has told him died years earlier after starting another family in Copenhagen, but he has a photo of him hanging in his bedroom that he looks at every night.  His obsession is to get enough information from his mother to allow him to find his father’s grave so that he may lay flowers on it, and he never tires of asking her to do this.

Bonnie Hayden and Simon, her young son, also live by themselves.  She works as a home health aide for a charity that services the elderly and disabled, always being given the most difficult cases because of her gentle and caring behavior.  Her life isn’t an easy one, but the love and strong bond between mother and child make things a bit easier.

As Sejer questions Bonnie’s best friend, the clients she visits on a weekly basis, the farmer on whose land the trailer was located, and her parents, he can find no one with any animosity toward her, no reason for the deaths of this mother and her child.  But someone must be hiding something.

Karin Fossum’s writing is flawless, and the characters she writes about are totally realistic.  There’s a wonderful interview with her in the online British magazine Independent, in which she talks about her outlook on life and her writing.  She tells the interviewer that she is no good with plots (something which with I definitely disagree), so she concentrates on “the yearnings of life’s also-rans, and how fragile minds fracture when seclusion or routine is disturbed.”

Hell Fire is a moving, tragic story of lives on parallel tracks that must inevitably collide.  It’s a must-read for its look into the hearts and minds of people who do things with the best of intentions, only to see them lead to death and destruction.

You can read more about Karin Fossum at many sites on the web; the interview mentioned above may be found at

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site.




ICARUS by Deon Meyer: Book Review

Until reading Icarus, my main exposure to the South African mystery genre was through the wonderful novels of James McClure that featured the interracial police duo of Tromp Kramer and Mickey Zondi.  I took it as a personal loss when the series, which was not long enough in my opinion, ended more than twenty years ago.  But now I have a new South African author to follow.

Deon Meyer is very well-known in his home country but was unknown to me until I picked up his latest mystery.  If all his books are as brilliant as this one, I’ve really been missing out.

South Africa has obviously changed a great deal since the official end of apartheid in 1994.  Now the Cape Town police department is totally integrated, with men and women who are white, black, and coloured, the latter meaning people of mixed-race ancestry.   In Icarus, the two main characters are Captain Benny Griessel, who is white, and Vaughn Cupido, who is coloured; the two make the most professional team in the South African Priority Crimes Investigation unit.  There is a problem, however, that hangs over them.  Benny Griessel is a recovering alcoholic and on the verge of relapse after more than two years of sobriety.

The reason for his return to drinking is explained at the beginning of the novel.  His close friend and former colleague, Vollie Fish, has just murdered his wife and two daughters and then turned his gun on himself.  Benny understands only too well the reason for the murders and suicide, a reason that he’s afraid one day might cause him to do something similar.  That is what made Benny, nicknamed Benna, turn into the Fireman’s Arms and order, in quick succession, six double whiskies.  He drinks to kill the fear that never leaves him.

The body of social media magnate Ernst Richter has been found, more than a month after his disappearance.  Ernst was the founder and director of, an internet company that arranges alibis for people involved in extra-marital or illicit affairs.  The company can create forged airline tickets, receipts for rooms at conferences the clients were supposed to have attended, restaurant checks for alleged business dinners–you get the idea.’s slogan is All pleasure.  No stress.  Not too subtle, but it attracted thousands of people eager to find a way to have their cake and eat it too.

Interspersed with the chapters following Benna and the department’s search for Ernst’s killer, there are chapters detailing the conversations of advocate Susan Peires and her latest client, François du Toit.  François is the fourth generation in his family to control a vineyard, the Klein Zegen Estate in Stellenbosch, in a town in the Western Cape Province of the country.  Although the lawyer is eager to get the details of why François wants to hire her, he tells her he must start at the beginning so that she’ll understand everything that led up to where he is today.  And that means a family saga of four generations of the du Toits.

Deon Meyer shifts his focus between Benna, the search for Ernst’s murderer, and the history of the wine farm.  They all connect in the end, but it’s the deft unraveling of the threads that connect them that makes Icarus such a great read.  When I got to the last pages I was figuratively holding my breath, waiting to see how it would all be resolved.

You can read more about Deon Meyer at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site.

IN BITTER CHILL by Sarah Ward: Book Review

In the small English county of Derbyshire in 1978, two young girls are abducted on their way to school.  Rachel Jones is either released or escapes, she can’t remember which; she’s found a few hours later on a road outside a forest, close to her home.  But Sophie Jenkins is never heard from again, and her body, if she is dead, has never been recovered.

Now, on the anniversary date of her daughter’s disappearance, Sophie’s mother, Yvonne, is found dead, a suicide.  What made her kill herself now, more than three decades later?

There’s a new team of investigators, but they are convinced, as were the police thirty years ago, that Rachel doesn’t remember any more about the kidnapping now than she has already told them.  In all the intervening years, she had never seen or spoken to Yvonne, and Rachel and her late mother never discussed the abduction.  Rachel has tried to put the past behind her, not talking to the press or to anyone else about it.  But now, the police warn her, the file on Sophie Jenkins is going to be reopened, and Rachel realizes that everything will be examined all over again.

For someone who has always professed to have no memories of what happened after she and Sophie got into the car with the woman who offered them a ride, Rachel’s job is filled with memories–other people’s.  She has become a genealogist, making family trees for clients interested in knowing as much as possible about their ancestors.  Rachel’s only living relative is her grandmother Nancy, an indomitable woman now in a nursing home, whose advice about Rachel’s past has always been the same:  “These things are best forgotten.”

In Bitter Chill is a taut, exciting thriller.  The weather is cold and the town is cold too–people keeping secrets from their families and their neighbors.  Yvonne Jenkins, a devoted mother by all accounts, had withdrawn from the world after Sophie’s disappearance.  When asked by a policewoman to describe Yvonne, the neighbor says, “Frozen.  She was frozen.”  There are no photos or memorabilia of Sophie in the Jenkins’ home, almost as if the child had never lived there.  And yet Yvonne chose the anniversary of Sophie’s abduction to take her own life.

Sarah Ward’s first novel is filled with fear and surprises, right up to the last page.  It’s also filled with tenderness and caring.  Actually, it’s filled with all those things because they are what make up our lives.

You can read more about Sarah Ward at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site.



THE STRANGER by Camilla Läckberg: Book Review

Serial killers are not common in Sweden, certainly not in small towns such as Fjällbacka.  But although the idea of such a killer is slow to take hold in the police department, eventually the detectives come to that conclusion when a series of apparently unrelated murders are seen to have a common thread.

The Stranger opens with a new hire for the town’s police department, Hanna Kruse, its first female detective.  She has arrived just in time to join veteran detective Patrik Hedström in investigating a fatal car crash.  At first glance it looks cut-and-dried; the driver smells strongly of alcohol and there’s an empty vodka bottle on the floor.  But there’s something about the scene and the victim’s body that bothers Patrik.

Upon further investigation, Patrik discovers the semi-hidden life of the victim, Marit Kaspersen.  Marit had been living with Kerstin, ostensibly as a roommate, with Kerstin pushing for coming out in the open as lesbians while Marit insisted that it would do irreparable harm to her daughter Sofie.  The two women had fought about this many times, and to Kerstin’s distress, the last words that she and Marit had had the night before the accident ended with Kerstin saying to Marit, “Go ahead and run away….And this time don’t bother coming back!”

Fjällbacka is opening its doors to the filming of a reality television show, with all the attendant publicity and chaos that such filming involves.  The self-involved twenty-somethings in the cast know how the game is played–do the most outrageous things and you get the most airtime.  Chosen from previous reality show contestants, the group includes a girl who cuts herself, a wealthy playboy, a surgically enhanced bombshell, and a Turkish emigree, among others. 

Then one of them disappears, and the already busy police department becomes overwhelmed by the pressure from the national media.   Interestingly, the missing cast member doesn’t seem to have left behind grieving mates; the overwhelming feeling is “sorry she’s gone missing, but look at all the extra publicity we’re getting.”

Several other threads run through the novel, bringing the town and its inhabitants into greater focus.   Patrik’s wife Erica is dealing with her sister Anna, who is deeply depressed by a horrific event that occurred in the previous novel, while caring for Anna’s two children.  Bertil Mellberg, the inept head of homicide, is starting a romantic relationship that will turn his life around.  Erling Larson, a wealthy, self-satisfied businessman, is responsible for bringing the reality show to his town and cares only for the onrush of tourists he expects as a result.  And Hanna, the new detective, appears overly eager to close the book on the automobile crash that claimed Marit’s life.

The Stranger is Camilla Läckberg’s seventh book that has been translated into English.  The novels should ideally be read in sequence, as the characters and stories continue from one to the other.  But even if you start with The Stranger, I promise you’ll want to go back and read the others to get the full story of life in Fjällbacka.

You can read more about Camilla Läckberg at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site.




THE VARIOUS HAUNTS OF MEN by Susan Hill: Book Review

It’s very exciting when you come upon an enjoyable series strictly by accident. Now that I’ve read the first in Susan Hill’s Simon Serrailler mysteries, I plan to read the others as quickly as possible.*

Although this novel is billed as a Simon Serrailler mystery, the English Detective Chief Inspector plays a rather peripheral part.  The novel actually revolves around several other characters, all living in the small English cathedral town of Lafferton.  I do so love British expressions–when would you ever hear an American town or city referred to as a cathedral/temple/ church/mosque/synagogue town?

A number of chapters are written in the first person by the killer.  Other chapters are told from the third-person points of view of Detective Sergeant Freya Graffham, new to the Lafferton police force and coming off an unhappy marriage in London; Catherine Serrailler Deerbon, general practitioner and sister of the Detective Chief Inspector; three women who become victims of the serial killer; and various other members of the town.  As many characters as there are in The Various Haunts of Men, you never lose track of who is who; Susan Hill has an outstanding ability to bring each character to life.

Angela Randall is a middle-aged woman, never married, who works in a facility for elderly people with dementia.  She goes for a run early one morning after completing her tour of duty, and she never returns.  Victim number one.

Debbie Parker is a young woman, unemployed, overweight, and depressed.  She goes for a walk early one morning and never returns.  Victim number two.

And there are others.

The town of Lafferton is small and very close knit.  It’s a refuge for DS Graffham, who eagerly joins the local choir and begins to make friends.  She’s enjoying her new life, until she meets her supervisor who had been on vacation when she was posted there.  Simon Serrailler takes her breath away, and despite herself she falls instantly, and seemingly hopelessly, in love.  She’s warned by a fellow chorister as well as by Catherine, Simon’s sister, that he has left a trail of broken hearts behind him, but Freya is unable to control her thoughts about him.

The plot is a tense one, with things moving swiftly. The characters, as I’ve said, are sharply delineated.  The only false note, I thought, was the instant emotional reaction Freya had to Serrailler; I guess I’m not really a believer in love at first sight, particularly on the part of a professional woman fresh from a disastrous marriage.  But this is truly nit-picking, since Serrailler’s charm and personality are obviously meant to be irresistible.

In a way, he reminded me of a much more modern Sir Peter Whimsey, a man of distinguished background and many talents, who chooses to pursue a career that is slightly “off” what would be expected from one of his class.  In fact, one of the interesting side issues is the estrangement between the Detective Chief Inspector and his father, a man who can’t understand why his son chose to ignore the three generations of physicians in the family and became a policeman instead.

*And I did just that.  One of the things I liked best about this book is the backstory.  I wrote in my About Marilyn post of March 9 how much more enjoyable I find books/series when I know more about the character and how he/she developed.  I said in that post that it’s more important to me when it’s a female character, but now I don’t know if I can stand by that statement.   In the past month, since I wrote the post you’re now reading, I’ve read three more novels in this series.  Each one gave me a deeper insight into Simon Serrailler and his family, and I’ve enjoyed the series more because of it.

The Various Haunts of Men is a compelling mystery with a shocking ending.  Now that I’ve read the three novels that follow it, I can hardly wait to read the fifth book in the series.

You can read more about Susan Hill at her web site.

THROUGH A GLASS, DARKLY by Donna Leon: Book Review

I want to go to Italy.  I want to go to Venice.  And I definitely want to read more Guido Brunetti mysteries.

I had seen Donna Leon’s mysteries in my local library and on bookstore shelves many times, but somehow I never picked one up.  I love novels that take me to faraway places, and I knew that this series was set in Venice; nevertheless, I passed them by and found other books to read.

A few months ago, a close friend and mystery connoisseur recommended the series to me.  I promised myself I would get one the next time I had a chance, and returning home this weekend from New York City I bought a copy of Through A Glass, Darkly and read it on the train back to Boston.  My only regret is coming to the series so late because it’s obvious that Guido Brunetti has had a long life as a member of the Venetian police department.  At this point in the series he has a wife and two children, and I wish I could have met him earlier in his career and gotten to know him at an earlier age.   Well, better late than never, and I plan to go back to Venice and spend more time with Signore Brunetti.

As the story open one of his colleagues asks Brunetti to meet with a friend of his who has been arrested in a demonstration outside a factory in Venice.  The police are eager to release the man as no charges have been filed against him, and when the three men exit the police station they are accosted by the man’s irate, out-of-control father-in-law.  The father-in-law hates his son-in-law and has been heard to threaten his life.

A second thread is the story of a worker in the father-in-law’s factory whose daughter suffered severe birth defects.  Is it, as the man believes, that the defects were caused by poisons discharged into the water by the factory owner, or is the truth that the father, in his insistence on a home birth against the advice of doctors, is responsible for his daughter’s physical and mental condition?

Is there an Italian word for mensch? This Yiddish word literally means a man, but it has come to mean someone who is good, kind, caring, empathic.  All those words fit the commissario.  Brunetti’s interactions with his wife and children are beautiful to behold.  No loner, no tough-talking cop, Brunetti is a warm man trying to do a difficult job.  It’s obvious that there are several recurring characters in this series whom the reader would enjoy meeting again and again, but that does not include his sly, out-for-himself superior officer, Vice-Questore Patta.

Ms. Leon’s descriptions of Venice make the reader want to hop on the next plane and rush to the canals of the city.  The food, too, is described wonderfully, and the love of the author for her adopted city comes through.  Through A Glass, Darkly is the fifteenth novel in a series that now numbers nineteen.  I look forward to meeting Comissario Brunetti again.

You can find out more about the author at